ENSENADA, Mexico - Ask people who've been to Mexico about their lasting image, their signature experience, and you'll get a wide range of answers.
Maybe it's the hazy memories of a Spring Break spent frolicking on the beaches of Cancun. Perhaps it's that arc the swan divers make as they plummet from the cliffs at Acapulco. Then again, it could be the mental picture of a golfer's best friends, standing on the other side of the green against a deep blue ocean while he studies the break on a tricky green at Cabo del Sol.
The images are different, but beneath them are memories shared by nearly everybody who has been to Mexico. Almost without fail, visitors talk about the exotic towns, friendly people, and beautiful weather. Of course, many will also recall a scary moment or two; the time they made a wrong turn and got lost, became the victim of a scam artist, or suddenly had an unsettling encounter with a cop. All kinds of things happen in Mexico.
The Mexican journey that follows features many of the classic images: oceanfront golf, rugged beaches, fresh seafood, tasty margaritas and the pleasure of making new friends. But it doesn't pass through the glory spots of Ixtapa, Los Cabos or Mazatlan. It's an old-fashioned road trip starting in San Diego and going about two hours down, passing through large, chaotic cities, quiet lobster villages and everything in between.
The rugged coast stretching about 80 miles between San Diego and Ensenada is largely unfamiliar to most Americans. Adventurous types from Southern California and Arizona know the region quite well. Beyond that, northern Baja doesn't get much national play.
But its profile is rising. Unless you've spent the last decade in a cave, you know what's been happening to real estate values in California, Arizona, and other hot markets. Many people who wish to break into the second home market are getting priced out of the best places in the United States, and the spillover into northern Baja is well underway.
Consider this example: a nice two-bedroom condo with an ocean view in San Diego will fetch about a million dollars. That same condo an hour south of the border can be had for maybe $300,000. More Americans are getting to know northern Baja, and though it's probably not the next Cancun, it is no longer an obscure, sleeper destination.
As for the golf, a quick disclaimer is in order: If you demand the best golf and don't mind paying for it, the northern Baja experience might disappoint. Currently there are just four championship courses in the region stretching from Tijuana to Ensenada, and quality varies. But if you want an inexpensive (no course has green fees more than $80) few days of golf, great food and drink, and some quirky adventures mixed in, northern Baja is a cinch. You'll get a lot for your money, you'll be treated well, and you'll never run out of things to do.
This trip is best suited for old friends who want to hop in the car and head south to swing a few clubs, enjoy margaritas and Cuban cigars, stare at the ocean, and dine on the tastiest lobster this side of Maine. Think of it as the movie Sideways, but in margarita country as opposed to wine country (though you can taste locally produced wine in northern Baja).
If you're flying in, pick up a rental car in San Diego and point it south on Interstate 5. In less than 20 minutes you'll cross the border into Tijuana. Once there, you can shop, catch a game of Jai Alai and enjoy a Caesar salad (complete with minced anchovies) at the restaurant where the popular dish was first created. Or you can just get down to business and tee it up at Tijuana Country Club, the only course in a city of millions.
A quick note about shopping: It seems intellectual property has few safeguards in Mexico. Shoppers will inevitably notice ceramic Tweety Bird sculptures wearing Oakland Raiders hats. They may also see renderings of Bart Simpson with a sombrero adorned on top of his spiky yellow hair, a shot glass or tequila bottle in his hand. It's not clear if these trademark violations are punishable, or even illegal, in Mexico. Either way, the cops have plenty of other things to worry about. Shoppers have no need to be concerned about breaking any rules, and this note is only included to encourage visitors to take note of the amusing product lines for sale, well, just about everywhere. By the way, prices for goods and merchandise are negotiable but don't haggle over your food and bar bill at a seaside restaurant.
And since we're talking about money, it's nice to have a few pesos. You'll get a better price for goods and offering the national currency is a show of respect. But if you can't make it to an exchange facility, don't worry about it. Dollars are accepted everywhere. You must, however, bring enough of them. Credit cards are not widely accepted outside of the resorts, and ATM's are very rare.
From Tijuana, northern Baja spreads south along an immaculate toll highway to Rosarito Beach. One can spend the night, take a surfing lesson, stroll the beach, or have a nice round of golf at Real Del Mar. Rosarito Beach also offers excellent shopping opportunities for quality furniture. For years, San Diegans have made the trip south to purchase wrought-iron fixtures, doors, benches, sculptures and countless other goods.
Coastal villages dot the landscape from Rosarito to Ensenada. Fox Studios built "Foxploration," a sort of mini-Universal Studios, and a museum to the film Titanic. Puerto Nuevo is a fishing village with more than a dozen restaurants featuring fresh lobster and other seafood. Similar villages and occasional resort hotels dot the coast for the next 20 or so kilometers to the south.
Just offshore from Rosarito Beach, the Coronado Islands are visible. Today they're quiet, home to a lighthouse operator and a revolving band of about a dozen Mexican Marines. But things weren't always this placid on the Coronado Islands. Back in the 1930's, there was a casino and hotel on one of the largest islands. During Prohibition, the casino was a hot spot for a cadre of Hollywood stars. Al Capone is said to have made a number of visits. Eventually, storms washed away the casino and hotel, and today it is essentially a wildlife refuge. Visitors are no longer welcome, though thousands of seals and other marine life gladly call its rocky beaches and emerald waters home.
Further south, just before Ensenada lies Bajamar, the jewel of northern Baja golf. Bajamar is home to a hotel, restaurant, and a wide variety of other lodgings. A trip to northern Baja will no doubt find you spending some time at Bajamar, at least to play golf.
The home stretch to Ensenada follows a steep, rocky coastline. You will notice floating circles in the bay just south of Bajamar. These are tuna farms, where fatty tuna is cultivated for the Japanese market, which considers the fish an extreme delicacy.
Ensenada will probably be the southern bookend of a trip to northern Baja. Cantinas, restaurants, marinas, a big port make up this mid-size city. About 10 miles offshore sits Todos Santos Island, home to one of the most spectacular surfing spots on the west coast. During the winter, big-wave season, pro surfers will converge on Todos Santos Island, some toting high-powered personal watercrafts to help tow riders into waves that are too large to catch by paddling alone.
Numerous vineyards dot the valleys just a few miles in from the coast, and wine making has become a growth industry. Many of the wineries offer tastings. On food and wine, Ensenada gave birth to the fish taco, whose popularity has spread north of the border, thanks to chains such as Rubio's and Baja Fresh. In Ensenada, fish tacos are easier to find than hot dogs in a typical American ballpark.
Some tips for those considering a visit to northern Baja: first, do not let your gas tank dip much below the halfway point. While gas stations are not uncommon in the region, they are not as ubiquitous as in the U.S., and running out of gas is sure to delay your tee time and cut into your happy hour.
Second, do not draw the attention of authorities. Bad experiences in Mexico are often the result of unfortunate encounters with police but this is not necessarily the cop's fault. South of the border, too many people take on the stereotype of the ugly American, drinking too much, acting too boisterously and eventually making somebody upset. This type of behavior could result in a citation, or even a trip to a police station, again delaying tee times and cutting into happy hours. These problems are easily avoidable: Just keep it cool and be respectful. Mexicans are gracious people and happy for your business. Treat them nicely and you'll see nothing but bright smiles.
Bajamar Golf Resort is the course to play if you only have time for one. Dubbed "the Pebble Beach of Mexico," Bajamar features three separate nines, but the hype is focused on the ocean holes. Four of them in a row, starting with a spectacular par 3 with a forced carry over a cove, and finishing with a beautiful par 5 with a green sitting just above the crashing surf. Rates are $79 from Monday to Thursday, and $93 Friday to Sunday, but the course is currently offering a deeply discounted package of a room, 27 holes of golf, breakfast, and lunch for $99.
Real Del Mar is the first resort course south of the border, some 20 minutes past Tijuana. It's a target course laid out in a tight series of canyons. Few homes and other visual obstructions line the canyon walls, and views are wonderful. Course conditions are also very good. Bring your best game to Real Del Mar, as errant shots almost always mean lost balls. Several risk-reward holes bring adventure into the round. Rates are $59 from Monday to Thursday, with twilight rates at $35 Monday to Thursday, and $40 on the weekends. Seniors (55 and older) get a nice discount.
Tijuana Country Club is an oasis in a giant urban jungle. Designed by Allistair MacKenzie in 1927, it has an old-fashioned country club feel and is an easy walk with parallel fairways. The club sits in the heart of the city and is not fully protected from the noise and visual pollution that spills in every direction just outside the walls. Despite the distractions, the course is fun for a leisurely afternoon of golf and makes for a good start to a three- or four-day trip. Rates are $45 on weekends, $28 on weekdays.
Baja Country Club is a work in progress. Open for 15 years, the course has suffered from neglect in recent times. New owners and management are aggressively getting Baja Country Club back in shape and for the first time have a reliable source of water. They also have an ambitious plan to sell hundreds of homes along the course, with prices starting at $150,000. A strong layout with a country club feel, the course is fun, but still rather scratchy. It's worth your time if you're in Ensenada; otherwise, give it a year or so before making a special trip. Rates are $46.75, with twilight rates (after 3:00 p.m.) at $30.25.
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